Aug 31, 2012

Derrida's preformative dimension

Lee Braver, author of Groundless Ground: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, a reader's guide to Heidegger and A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism, mounts a defense of the philosophy -- and the philosophical style -- of Jacques Derrida:
"Derrida’s difficulty is exacerbated by a kind of performative dimension to his writings. He believes that language is inherently unstable and that a text’s meaning is always open to more than one legitimate interpretation (not infinitely open—readings must be based on what is actually written), and he shows this occurring in his own writing, playing with language and emphasizing ambiguities. This is all very carefully done and, with some work, you can see what he’s doing, but it is very different from our normal ways of reading and, if you don’t have some patience, it comes across as impenetrable gobbledygook. Note, however, that this way of writing follows from his views on the nature of language. Surely this is a sensible an approach as Quine’s describing the fact that there is no fact about meaning in as clear and unequivocal a way as possible.

"He is accused of not doing philosophy, of attacking and rejecting reason, and of not reading his subject matter carefully. But just what philosophy is and how it works and what is allowed to be reasonable is precisely what is at issue in a lot of philosophy, and is often challenged by the great philosophers."
This seems exactly right to me.



Aug 30, 2012

The GOP platform & the 'war on religion'

The Republican Party platform -- approved this week at the convention in Tampa -- includes a gloss on the Bill of Rights. For the First Amendment's two clauses on religious liberty, establishment and exercise, the party repeats the claim that there is currently a "war on religion" being waged by the Obama administration, and takes a stand defending individuals' and institutions' right not to offer services not in accordance with given affiliated religions.

The platform reads:
"The most offensive instance of this war on religion has been the current Administration's attempt to compel faith-related institutions, as well as believing individuals, to contravene their deeply held religious, moral, or ethical beliefs regarding health services, traditional marriage, or abortion. This forcible secularization of religious and religiously affiliated organizations, including faith-based hospitals and colleges, has been in tandem with the current Administration’s audacity in declaring which faith-related activities are, or are not, protected by the First Amendment—an unprecedented aggression repudiated by a unanimous Supreme Court in its Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC decision.

"We pledge to respect the religious beliefs and rights of conscience of all Americans and to safeguard the independence of their institutions from government. No health care professional or organization should ever be required to perform, provide for, withhold, or refer for a medical service against their conscience."
This seems to sum up the argument, essentially, which has been made many places in the ongoing religious-liberty-related debate about health care.

Obama's blasphemy law

Ruling in favor of Westboro Baptist Church, last year, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the church members' very offensive speech was still protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. Even though that speech was offensive, and even though it was outside a U.S. soldier's funeral.

Roberts wrote, "The fact that Westboro spoke in connection with a funeral ... cannot by itself transform the nature of Westboro’s speech."

Those opposing the church's protests -- which are famous for provocative slogans such as "God Hates Fags," "God Hates America," "Pray for More Dead Soldiers," and "You Will Eat Your Babies" -- had argued that, specifically because these signs were outside a funeral, they were different than if they'd been elsewhere.

President Barack Obama endorsed that argument that funerals are different this month, in a statement he made as he signed HR 1627 into law. The law -- sponsored by Republican congressmen from Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Tennessee -- limits just a little bit more Westboro Baptist's ability to protest America, declare God's condemnations and generally be provocative in the exercise of their religion. Obama supported this limiting of speech, he said, because of a "sacred duty." Where the lawyers in the Westboro court case and Samuel Alito, the one justice who dissented from the Supreme Court ruling, argued this sort of speech is different because at a funeral it's more hurtful and harmful, Obama instead argued this speech is wrong because it is blasphemous.

Blasphemous not against God, per se, but against a sense of secular sacredness. Against that which is holy in what has been called America's civil religion.

Aug 29, 2012

Žižek's favorite film

Slovoj Žižek listed The Sound of Music among his top 10 favorite films for the BFI's 2012 critics list.

He said, "This is what I really enjoy – no compromises for high quality or good taste."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the critics' final top 10 list didn't include any of Žižek's picks.

Aug 28, 2012

Shane Claiborne, symbol of a possibility

Shane Claiborne, it turns out, can stand for Germans symbolically as representing one end of a range of the possibilities of what Christianity can be.

Claiborne -- of The Simple Way -- was referenced in a recent German opinion piece about (re)discovering the Christian faith, mentioned as an example of Christianity that is "radikaler als Punk oder Revolution," "more radical than punk or revolution." The authors, Elke Naters and Sven Lager, are Germans living in South Africa, where they escaped their Berliner ennui and found their faith. They speak of that faith specifically in the context of South Africa, but the raise Claiborne as an example of this kind of thing they're talking about existing in the West.

He's cited, too, as a counter-example to the one their German friends raise when they think of active and committed Christianity: George W. Bush. Claiborne is a representative of another alternative American Christianity, and is used in the piece to represent a version of Christianity that bourgeois and broadly liberal Germans might find compelling.

They affirm this kind of Christianity, which they present, kind of, as a challenge to Germans: They believe the Bible, they believe Jesus resurrected "und in uns lebt," "and lives in us," and they believe in eternal life, heaven and hell. This, they add, has a practical effect, a social consequence, as "wir glauben an ein Leben vor dem Tod," "we believe in life before death."

Naters and Lager write that Claiborne is an example of this life:
"Seither sehen wir die Kraft des Glaubens nicht nur in Südafrika. Der Amerikaner Shane Claiborne zum Beispiel hat schon viele Jahre vor der Occupy-Bewegung 10.000 Dollar in Münzen und kleinen Scheinen auf die Wall Street gekippt, und einen Tumult verursacht, dass die Straße abgesperrt werden musste. Radikale Großzügigkeit verschließt die Türen der Gier – so lautete seine christliche Botschaft."
"Since then, we have seen the power of faith not only in South Africa. The American Shane Claiborne, for example, had been at it already many years before the Occupy Movement dumped $10,000 in coins and small bills on Wall Street and the tumult caused the street to have to be locked down. Radical generosity closes the doors of greed -- that was his Christian message."
Claiborne strikes me as an odd figure to have this function. Not because he doesn't preach this message Naters and Lager describe, but just because he's such a relatively minor figure, in the scheme of things. Why wasn't Jimmy Carter the counterpoint to George Bush? Here Claiborne is, though, in the German press, representing a different kind of Christianity.

Aug 26, 2012

Hard-to-sing redemption songs

It happens halfway through the hymn, between the second verse and the chorus. Walter, struggling with the key, looks at the white-haired congregants around him in the plain Protestant church, looks at the hymn book in his hands, and drops his voice a step to try and sing bass.

It's a familiar enough scene in congregational singing, though I don't think I've seen it in a film before. The hymn is pitched a little too high or a little too low -- I don't know the technical terms here -- and the singers struggle with high notes being too high or the low ones too low, and they switch, several times in the four or five verses, trying to get it right.

Trying to conform to the voices around them. Trying to find the right place in the community song.

This is also the theme of Small Town Murder Songs, a film which is ostensibly a moody, modern gothic crime story, but is really about a drama of the struggle of faith in the context of a community.

Aug 25, 2012

Aug 23, 2012

Night weeds

Night weeds

The new irrelevance of Rick Warren

There's something really about odd Rick Warren's explanation for why he's cancelled the planned Obama-Romeny forum. The megachurch pastor and best-selling author had announced he would reprise his role as presidential job interviewer, but now he won't.

"We created the civil forums to promote civility and personal respect between people with major differences .... The forums are meant to be a place where people of goodwill can seriously disagree on significant issues without being disagreeable or resorting to personal attack and name-calling. But that is not the climate of today's campaign."
Isn't this completely backwards, though? There's a lack of civility, so the forum is supposed to promote civility, but there isn't civility, so the forum is cancelled. But if what the forum was intended to accomplish were a fiat accompli, then what would be the point?

It's a strange argument.

One suspects something else must be going on.

Aug 21, 2012

Wallace, writing fiction for God, the Cosmos, the Unified Field

“Fiction for me is a conversation for me between me and something that May Not Be Named—God, the Cosmos, the Unified Field, my own psychoanalitic cathexes, Roqoq’oqu, whomever. I do not feel even the hint of an obligation to an entity called READER—do not regard it as his favor, rather as his choice, that, duly warned, he is expended capital/time/retinal energy on what I’ve done.”
-- David Foster Wallace, pre-Infinite Jest, before the break down and the half-way house time that would inform the ethics of Infinite Jest (the ethics both of & in the text), according to an excerpt from D.T. Max's forthcoming biography of Wallace.

My concerns Max's bio will ignore Wallace's religious aspects and efforts still stand, but this excerpt looks really good

Defending damnation

Justin Taylor, an editor at Crossway and blogger at The Gospel Coalition, defending the doctrine of eternal damnation:

Taylor notes:
"If I had a 'do over' I might have challenged the premise of the analogy: if a father can rescue his children from destruction but only saves some we consider him morally culpable, but in the Christian worldview we are rebelling against the Judge and receive a free offer of mercy which we reject. Instead, I focused on the underlying issue I see at play not only in this debate but in so many aspects of progressive revisionism: namely the desire to create God in our own image."
This is an insanely difficult argument to make, that an all-power, all-loving God wills (or even just allows) everlasting punishment. There are ways to make the argument easier -- e.g. freewill, even if that just pushes the problem back, rather than resolving it.

Taylor, to his credit, doesn't try to shirk the task.

His ultimate argument is against the arguments, it seems to me. He doesn't want to "justify the ways of God to man," ala Milton, but to defend God against the claim justifications are needed. Taylor's point is traditional Christian theology rejects antropocentric standards.

I'm not convinced Taylor actually rejects all anthropocentrism, including the anthropocentric standards of justice, the standards of a judge, king, etc. But this is the argument he's advancing.

He's advancing his anti-anthropocentrism, even, it seems, to the point of discounting the anthropocentrism of the incarnation. Where some take up this issue of hell by attempting to explicate judgement/grace from the ethics of Jesus, as Jesus is understood as the ultimate revelation of God, Taylor states, "I think that is inverting the proper Creator-creature relationship."

Aug 20, 2012

Aug 19, 2012

Costs of a scandal

Some statistics:
  • In the last 15 years, the American Catholic Church has spent about $48 on lawsuit settlements per US Catholic.
  • In California, the Catholic Church has spent about $371 on lawsuit settlements per California Catholic during the same period. 
  • Giving to the church is thought to have declined by 20 percent.
  • The church has spent about $212,500 on lawsuit settlements per priest who, according to the US bishops' conference, has been "not implausibly" accused of sexually molesting a minor. 

Aug 18, 2012

WPA Federal Arts Project mural in Eugene, Ore., painted by Carl Morris.

Morris, in an oral history:
"We left the houseboat and we had moved to New York, because I had already been told no [by the committee deciding who would paint a mural in Eugene, Ore]. While we were there a funny thing happened. A friend of ours said, 'I don't know what you think of fortune tellers, but there is one I would think you would find amusing down in the Village if you would like to come down.' We said, 'Sure.' This fortune teller not only told an awful lot of things I didn't want to hear but also said, 'You will get a letter that will send you west.' I said, 'O.K. I'm going to get a letter.' Went home and got this letter from the department saying that I'd been awarded this commission. So we moved back out here and Hilda came to Portland and found a house for us. I went down to Eugene and spent time down there going through the lumber industry and agriculture and all of that, and completely reworked the whole idea all over again. Then, I don't know why these things always have to happen with drama, but again then I was awarded the final acceptance on this, we of course had to have a bottle of scotch. And woke up the next morning in such a condition that I think I heard the words Pearl Harbor five times before it penetrated."

Aug 17, 2012

The religious history of the cubicle

The spiritual history of cubicles

Kathryn Lofton, American religion professor at Yale, author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, and curator/executive editor of, "a collaborative genealogy of spirituality," talks about the religious history of the "spiritless space" of the office cubicle.

"The cubicle," Lofton said, at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies last night, "is a shuttered spiritless trap. The cubicle is a spirited invitation to rise."

Aug 16, 2012

To capitalize, or not

"Evangelical" or "evangelical"?

"Pentecostal" or "pentecostal"?

Is it "deist" or "Deist," "atheist," or "Atheist"?

Capitalization of group identifiers in religion writing is not exactly consistent. Certain publishers, journals, and authors have their preferences. The Religion Stylebook is authoritative for news reporters who cover religion, and it has its capitalization rules ("Uppercase only when part of a formal name"). But, generally, there's a lot of variety, a lot of inconsistency, a lot of making-it-up-as-you-go.

Aug 15, 2012

X is in the general interest

"I shall begin by assuming that the proposition: 'Recommendation X is legitimate' has the same meaning as the proposition: 'Recommendation X is in the general (or public) interest,' where X can be an action as well as a norm of action or even a system of such norms (in the case we are considering, a system of domination). 'X is in the general interest' is to mean that the normative validity claim connected with X counts as justified. The justifiability of competing validity claims is decided by a system of possible justifications; a single justification is called a legitimation. The reconstruction of given legitimations can consist, first, in discovering the justificatory system, S, that allows for evaluating the given legitimation valid or invalid in S. 'Valid in S' is to mean only that someone who accepts S -- a myth or a cosmology or a political theory -- must also accept the grounds given in valid legitimations. This necessity expresses a consistency connection resulting from the internal relations of the justificatory system."
-- Jürgen Habermas, "Legitimation Problems in the Modern State."

What Chris Rock learned from TV preachers

Televangelists are not often praised. So it's interesting to hear an outright appreciation of TV preachers. And of the art of TV preaching.

From Chris Rock, of all people.

The comedian talked on NPR's Fresh Air last week about how his comedy is similar to his grandfather's preaching, and how he learned and continues to learn from TV preachers.

As the conversation starts, it seems like Rock is dismissing preachers as hucksters, manipulators. As it goes on, though, that doesn't seem to be his point. Instead it's admiration. And emulation. He respects preachers' ability to hold attention, keep a crowd, and communicate.

Aug 14, 2012

Atheism after New Atheism

What happens after New Atheism?

As a group, the New Atheists took a lot of their impetus, their energy and vitriol, from the historical moment of 9/11. That historical moment is passing, though. Likewise, there seems to be a sense that New Atheism is increasingly passe. The abrasive rhetoric and aggravation of culture wars can only play for so long. Where does the "conversation" go after Religulous?

Perhaps in another direction entirely.

Two writers, one in Harpers and one in the Chronicle of Higher Education, are suggesting that new schools of atheist thought have emerged -- or, perhaps, congealed -- that aren't interested in debunking religion, but understanding it. They've abandoned the antagonistic and essentially political project of New Atheism. Instead, they're pursuing something more nuanced.

Christopher R. Beha, a self-described "disappointed disbeliever," in Harpers:
"The New New Atheists tend not to take up the question of God’s existence, which they take for granted as settled in the negative. Instead, they seek to salvage what is lost when belief erodes, concerning themselves with what atheists ought to believe and do in religion’s stead."
Tom Bartlett, in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
"[Y]ou have to figure out what religion does for us in the first place. That's exactly what a loosely affiliated group of scholars in fields including biology, anthropology, and psychology are working on. They're applying evolutionary theory to the study of religion in order to discover whether or not it strengthens societies, makes them more successful, more cooperative, kinder. The scholars, many of them atheists themselves, generally look askance at the rise of New Atheism, calling its proponents ignorant, fundamentalist, and worst of all, unscientific."
It's not entirely clear that Bartlett and  Beha are talking about the same cultural thing, and I'm not entirely convinced the various people and projects described in the two pieces qualify as a movement or as movements.

But, add in Chris Stedman's attempts to integrate atheists into interfaith work and his forthcoming book, Faitheist, "The story of a former Evangelical Christian turned openly gay atheist who now works to bridge the divide between atheists and the religious," and one does sense perhaps the beginnings of atheism after New Atheism.

Aug 12, 2012

America's first atheist

"Almighty Freedom! give my venturous song
The force, the charm that to thy voice belong;
Tis thine to shape my course, to light my way,
To nerve my country with the patriot lay,
To teach all men where all their interest lies,
How rulers may be just and nations wise:
Strong in thy strength I bend no suppliant knee,
Invoke no miracle, no Muse but thee."
-- Joel Barlow, The Columbiad: Book I.

Barlow is not thought of as a significant figure of late 18th, early 19th century America. He's a little noted epic poet, and a minor diplomat remembered only really for drafting the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, which contains the controversial clause, "As the government of the United States of America is not founded in any sense on the Christian religion."

He is significant, though, as possibly America's first atheist.

Aug 11, 2012

Ignoring David Foster Wallace's religion

The forthcoming biography of David Foster Wallace, D.T. Max's Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, seems very unlikely to shed any light on Wallace's faith or spirituality.

Though it's known that, at one point, Wallace belonged to a church in Illinois -- maybe a Mennonite church -- and also he reportedly twice attempted to join the Catholic Church, there's not much more information about his religiousness. Beliefs, practices, problems or questions, affiliations -- it's all question marks. A lot is known about his life, but not about this. His life fascinates people, and moves people. His ethical-religious reflections especially.

But no one in the position to find out more about his religious beliefs or practices seems to have been interested in doing so.

Either that or the information just isn't out there.

Aug 7, 2012

Protecting belief

"Christian theology never expressly identified God and nature; but the point is that natural theology and nature-preaching had implanted within Protestantism an increasingly strong leaning in this direction. Ministers often forgot Calvin's warnings, misunderstood Edwards, ignored Bushnell; natural theologians wanted not just to glorify God in nature but to see Him there ....

In the end, the most influential church leaders tried to protect belief by making peace with modernity, by conceiving God and His purposes in terms as nearly compatible as possible with secular understandings and aims. A minority insisted that a transcendent God must utterly elude human grasp."
-- James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America.

A perch at the end of the day

Perch at the end of the day

Aug 3, 2012

Let me root, root, root for the home team:
When sports replaces religion in the rites of death

"It was such a big part of her life, why not be a part of her send off too."

Errol Morris' latest short documentary, on sports funerals:

As a reporter, I covered one of these in Georgia in 2007 or '08. The viewing was set up as a tail gate party, and everyone wore University of Georgia Bulldog gear in accordance with the will of the man who'd died. A large bulldog was inflated in front of the funeral home, bulldog flags were flown from the hearse, and the man was buried with two tickets to the next game in his hand.

Morris doesn't get into the specifically religious aspects of these funerals, though he does ask one Cubs fan if there will be sports in heaven.

The Georgia funeral director I spoke to saw sports funerals as replacing traditional religious rites. For these people, he said, religion was too dour, too somber. They didn't want organ music and a rented minister. What they wanted was a celebration, and for their friends and families to enjoy at their deaths what they had enjoyed in their lives. Religion wasn't an important part of their lives, wasn't what gave their lives meaning. Sports was. So they designed these non-religious rites of passage around that idea.

The widow at the viewing I attended agreed with that. She said she hadn't known of her husband's plans until he died and she read his will, but that he'd done what he knew would comfort her and everyone who cared about him.

"All this," she told me, "is him saying to me, 'don't cry, now. I don't want no crying.'"

Ted Cruz & the Texas Ten Commandment Monument case

Ted Cruz -- Texas Republican nominee for US Senate, hailed now as a leader and intellectual force for the Tea Party movement -- made his time as Texas' Solicitor General a foundational piece of his image and campaign. In that role he argued several First Amendment cases before the Supreme Court.

Van Orden v. Perry, also known as the Texas Ten Commandments Monument case, is particularly interesting.

Aug 2, 2012

New home

New home

Aug 1, 2012

Al Mohler's confessionalism

Al Mohler, who once effected a purge of "liberals" at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was recently reflecting on that after nearly 10 years. In that reflection he gives a curious account of what he considers liberalism, and how that liberalism happened at the flagship seminary of the famously conservative Southern Baptists.

"The confessional accountability was loosed. And the obligation was ignored. Now it was not done in a blatant way, where someone got up and said 'I deny the Abstract [of Principles],' except in a couple of -- it did happen in a couple of examples. But rather it happened by the claim to private interpretation, which was explicitly ruled out by the founders. Who said the confession must be signed by every faculty member.... It was very clear that if at any point mental reservations should come, it was the faculty member's duty to bring his concerns with his resignation to the president of the school [laughter]. When the conservatives at the SBC -- and this is something very, very important, and I raise this with some fear and trepidation, for I have concerns about my own denomination, which are many -- but, grassroots Southern Baptist, many of whom could not articulate what was wrong, knew something was horribly wrong .... Wonderfully, by God's grace, the issues became clarified. And you had grassroots Baptists who began to understand the issue of the inerrancy of God's word. And, even though they may not know the word 'confesssionalism,' they knew the need for it, even if unarticulated."
This is curious, I think, for a few reasons:

1) Mohler is suggesting that theological liberals are not liberals because they hold liberal positions, but because of the how they come to those positions. It's the hermeneutic of private interpretation that bothers him. Presumably one could hold that individuals can and should interpret the Bible for themselves and still come to exclusively conservative positions on things,  but Mohler would still object to them (in principle at least).

Mohler's making opponents out of a lot of evangelicals who would agree with him on particular issues that normally get classified as "conservative" or "liberal," on the basis that their interpretive principles are in themselves "liberal," even if that hasn't been the result.